Vox Pop

I was involved in a highly enjoyable discussion on Twitter yesterday after someone asked what the ideal population for New Zealand would be.

This has been a bugbear of mine for several years now, so quick as a flash I came back with “Twenty million”.

I think New Zealand faces something of a dilemma. We have one city, a handful of towns and villages and lots of open space. This makes us the ideal place to film the next outdoor/wilderness epic but a poor place to meet people. Building those networks that build the future economic power houses is going to be difficult if we’re scattered around the place, as countless studies of incubators, hubs and entrepreneurialism have shown.

In addition, the cost of providing infrastructure is high because we have so few people to pay for it. I’m constantly amazed that we have two national networks covering 97% of the population with 3G service. That we’re on our way to having three is astonishing because the money sunk into providing service to four million people would equally provide service (and revenue commensurate with that service) to ten million in central London or Hong Kong or just about anywhere else.

Infrastructure costs a lot of money and for that you need a government willing to support it and a large enough tax base to provide cash to build it. We simply struggle on that score because of our population size.

Great Britain is about the same size as New Zealand geographically, yet has 60 million people. Japan, not too dissimilar in terms of useable landmass and there the population exceeds 120 million. Four million Kiwis simply doesn’t give us the country we want.

After the shock/horror of having MORE PEOPLE died down, someone quickly pointed out the inevitable problem: they’ll all move to Auckland.

He’s quite right. If we simply carry on doing what we are today, Auckland will continue to grow like topsy, creating a two-tier country of Us versus Them in everything from government spend, house prices and business location. Today you move to Auckland because you have to be in Auckland.

I’m suggesting tomorrow might be quite different.

I moved up from Hamilton nearly 20 years ago and I moved for work. I had to be in Auckland to sit at a computer and type words onto a screen. Today, that job could be done from anywhere in New Zealand or indeed the world (hello, outsourcing) but it’s still done in an expensive office block in the central city.

Twenty years from now when my children are well engaged with the workforce, I would hope they’d be able to conduct a similar role from wherever they chose to be. Hamilton, Wellington, Dunedin even. What about Clevedon? What about Warkworth or Cambridge or Coromandel?

The fundamental reason for moving to the city – to get that job and be at your desk – is gone. In fact, the pressure is building to go the other way. Why open an office in central Auckland with expensive rent, competition for staff driving up wages, mortgage rates that are insane and drive up wages even more and all the hassles of traffic and lousy public transport, when you can open the same office in Whangarei or Napier or Nelson and have a good quality of life, with good access to the world via broadband.

You’ll remember we brought Dr Tim Williams to New Zealand a couple of years ago. His white paper, Connecting Communities, remains my touchstone for such regional and rural regeneration programmes. In Tim’s world, broadband enables companies to work smarter and make the most of our greatest asset – the people of New Zealand. I think it’s high time we saw regional development given this kind of priority because we need more people, we need more infrastructure and we need those people to live throughout the country, not clustered in one city that gobbles up the resources while everyone else gets leftovers.

Twenty million might be a bit steep, but imagine a New Zealand with 10 million. Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin each with a  population over the million mark, but carefully managed. New towns and cities springing up to serve the main centres, built on quality infrastructure lines. Intercity trains, broadband for all.

It could be your worst nightmare, but if we do it well, do it with a will to succeed, it could be the making of our future here in New Zealand.